The Lions River Club in Dargle was completely overwhelmed as 400 people arrived for the Rhino Oil & Gas Exploration Application Meeting on Tuesday 3 November. After only 11 people had come to their morning meeting in Taylor’s Halt, this was a bit of a shock!
The visitors were greeted by a spectacular array of colourful posters and banners made by Midlands learners. Every inch inside and out of the building was covered. They were offered fresh delicious Dargle water (a precious resource) and homemade cordial. However, they had brought their own bottled water with them.
As the crowd swelled, demonstrators shouted Angifuni fracking and Fracking No Way and toyi toyied in front of the building. Thandanani Luvuno and Nhlonipho Zondo performed a short energetic drama saying an unequivocal No to Fracking. Nicole Schafer and Jane Symes filmed the action and proceedings, interviewing students, farmers, activist and artists.
At 2.30 they tried to start the meeting. They had no PA system, not enough chairs and hundreds of people could not even get near the windows, let alone into the room. “This is a shambles and disrespectful. Many of us have left our jobs and farms to attend the meeting and we can’t even hear what you are saying.” The woman chairing the meeting, really battled to get any order and explain the objectives of the meeting: to share information and listen to objections and concerns. Shouts of ‘we don’t want to see your presentation, just go home’ were followed by ‘we reject the process unanimously.’
Bobby Peek of groundWork asked why there were no representatives of PASA, DWS, Dept of Agriculture present. Matthew Hemming of SLR told us they were invited, but he could not do anything if they did not come. Comments flew – including: “This is not a democratic process – we cannot endorse a meeting that is illegal, we do not consent. Our democracy has been outsourced to consultants! Fracking is a violent assault on all of us.” Someone shouted “Hands up if you do not agree to fracking” The entire hall and everyone outside, put hands up – 100% show of hands and lots of spontaneous clapping. Who wants fracking? No hands went up – THERE IS YOUR ANSWER.”
There were high levels of frustration in the crowd – about not hearing what was being said and wanting to speak but not getting a chance. Some people were worried that if we walked out of the meeting in protest that we would lose our opportunity to be heard, others worried that if we stayed it meant we were supporting the whole fracking issue. Some people were very emotional and shouting, while others asked for quiet to be able to ask questions and have answers. Some people walked out. Quite a number of people arrived late, had a look, got annoyed about not being able to hear anything and left. Penz Malinga commented “I think the people from KZN, especially farmers and conservationist are going to stay firm on their NO to exploration and stop at nothing until they are heard. Some people didn’t hear a thing, standing outside. The consultants are going to have to find another way to listen to the concerns of the people.”
The Chairperson admitted that they had not expected so many people and that all meetings have been met with negative response. More shouting! “Stop the process now, stop wasting our time. Another meeting will waste more time. It is not a public participation process if we can’t hear.
Ben Goodwin pointed out that only a privileged few were present – those with access to the internet and information and the ability to take time off work to attend – were excluded. What about the small rural villages? Will they have any opportunity to defend their livelihoods? Why were the meeting notices were only in English mainstream newspapers? Malvina van Bremem asked where representatives of Ingonyama Trust were. One of the many school children present suggested that they hold their meeting in a school hall “It is our future, we are the next generation and this affects us most.”
Robin Barnsley, who represented the 46 000 farmers who are members of Kwanalu, expressed deep concern that people were leaving in disappointment at not being able to participate. “Go away, prepare yourselves properly and come back.” Eventually they agreed that they would arrange another meeting at a bigger venue. Some serious questions were asked, but they were mostly overshadowed by the crowd who repeated relentlessly “We know that exploration will lead to fracking and we don’t want fracking. Have some manners and just leave us alone.” Barend Booysen pointed out “We are all active, concerned citizens around here and well informed on environmental matters, we have done our research. You came to present and to get a response, we all understand the process and outcomes. We have made our response clear – We are utterly against mining!”
Dave Pullin insisted, as did a few others, on knowing who Rhino Oil & Gas was – who are the shareholders? Phillip Steyn told us quietly that it was a privately owned company with two SA directors – himself and Patrick Mulligan. They took over a shell company and changed the directors. The parent company is Rhino Resources based in Dallas, Texas. He assured everyone that they had the finances and skills to complete this process. Comment from the crowd “If you handle fracking the way you handle meetings…we are all in for trouble.”
Francois du Toit of ACT was firm “I have questions I do not want to be fobbed off or tick boxed. How did this procedure happen so fast? How does a young inexperienced COO get a licence to explore 18 million hectares? 90% of that land can’t be fracked due to the fracking regulations which prohibit drilling within 5 kilometres from the an existing municipal water well field and identified future well fields and sources, within 500 metres of borehole or the edge of a riparian area or within 1 kilometre of a wetland.” Bruce Haynes added “If less than 10% of the area can be mined, why are you wasting our time worrying about such huge area You are unnecessarily involving vast numbers of people and polarising them – this prohibits meaningful, calm debate from taking place. Extend your time frame! The gas has been there for millions of years, it is not going anywhere.”
The audience wondered how this had been sprung upon us so suddenly – where were the parliamentary debates? What about our Constitutional rights? Bobby Peek explained Operation Phakisa – a government plan to fast track mining as a development mechanism. How do we show the government that we are not interesting in gas extraction? We were advised by SLR to write to the Ministers and to PASA. We managed to get PASA’s telephone number 021 938 3500, although not a contact person. Richard Kelland “This is not a silo issue. It is an issue of national importance involving not only the departments of Minerals, Energy, Water, Environment and Agriculture, but the entire cabinet, a full Parliamentary process, and the entire national community. We are the custodians of this land and its resources and environment for future generations. We have an obligation to mobilise on this issue. This is a national referendum issue if ever there was one, after thorough and exhaustive research and public participation.”
The consultants noted that there was 100% objection to the process and agreed to send out the minutes of the meeting to everyone on the register. We didn’t observe anyone taking minutes, but perhaps they were recording.
Afterwards an exhausted and battered looking Philip Steyn was surrounded by people with questions. “You are an ordinary person, like us. You are young. What are you thinking? You know this could lead to something that we will never be able to undo.” He was urged to invest instead in renewables. UKZN hydrology student Asandile Mqulo said “You can see in his face, he has had enough, he feels awful.” Philip answered many comments with “No comment” and “That’s your perception” but didn’t really share any info.
The early end to the meeting did mean we had an opportunity to buy the visitors a drink, and talk more calmly about the process as the sun set. Matthew Hemming was adamant that SLR would follow the process and if they found sound environmental reasons why it should not go ahead, that is what they would recommend. We couldn’t really understand why they had bothered to even start. Fossil Fuel Must Fall.
Bruce Haynes pointed out the paradoxical economy we live in – that we all drove cars to get to the anti-fossil fuels meeting. Charlie Mitchell “We need to convince the government to reduce energy consumption, to invest in renewable and sustainable energy at all costs, this will brighten the developing face of our country and prevent them from having to face the real wrath of the people who live here.”
The next day they headed to Mooi River, where once again they were ill prepared and received a grilling from the farming community. It was pointed out that the venue was far too small and it was proposed that the meeting be reconvened at a larger more appropriate venue – Weston College offered the use of their facilities. Questions were asked why the meeting was so unrepresentative – there were only white people present – this was a major concern. It was pointed out that local black communities had been informed about the potential benefits that the gas industry could provide (Jobs and cheaper fuel) without being made aware of the risks involved. SLR responded that notices had gone out in Zulu as well as English.
Studies have shown that the area is under water stress (particularly the Mpofana system), so where is the water for fracking to come from? Rhino refused to respond. When asked how much water is tupically required per well in fracking operations, Rhino refused to answer.
When asked if they understood the negative implications of fracking, they said they did, but they were involved in exploration, not fracking. SLR pointed out that they are paid whatever the outcome, so they had no vested interest in the outcome.
The view was expressed that the community did not want fracking or any process that would lead to it and that they may need to violently defend their lands if this project progresses.
In Greytown, The SLR organisers once again totally under-estimated the local interest and had only 100 chairs. About 15 minutes before the meeting was due to begin, there was a large influx of attendees, so tables were removed and chairs shuffled forward to accommodate another 100 people. Still the walls were lined, with all standing only space occupied. SLR asked if everyone could hear? No, the people in the passageway, entrance rooms, verandah and street couldn’t hear. (At least another 300 people)
Vigorous consultation ensued between the members of SLR and some members of the community. The suitability of the venue was highly questionable and declared unsafe for the numbers attending. A representative of SLR admitted this and said there were 2 options: The meeting could be held in 2 sessions, from 2.30 – 4.30p.m. and another from 4.30- 6.30p.m. OR the meeting be closed and a more suitable venue be located, with date and venue advised, in due course. SLR agreed that a second meeting be arranged, advertised with adequate notice, to allow the communities attendance.
An elderly lady spoke about the disrepsect the organisers had shown to the community. The whole exploration issue was centred around ‘money’ yet the organisers could not spend a little more for a more suitable venue. She was applauded by all present.
Ms. Theresa Edwards (of the Greytown Municipality) invited the organisers to coffee and biscuits in her office to discuss a more suitable venue and date.
The meeting dispersed peacefully. It was a small Victory in what will be a long Battle.
Joy Alcock “It is my humble opinion that the ripples of understanding are slowly spreading out, to the furthest homesteads and rural communities. They are already experiencing the worst drought within living memory, their livestock are dying in droves.
It was wonderful to see stern faced and serious farmers, (also facing extreme hardship), sitting alongside the young, bright-eyed (and unemployed) people of the Umvoti district. We are simply not prepared to risk the natural resources, our livelihoods and our children’s futures into the hands of people who cannot even organise a simple meeting.”
“An unequivocal success for our community. I think Rhino had no idea of the groundswell of opposition and will have to rethink at least their presentation techniques,” said Annie Waterhouse. They completely underestimated the depth of passion in the green hills of the Midlands.
You are urged to send your comments on the Rhino Application to SLR Consulting before the deadline of 12 November. We must insist on a full Strategic Environmental Assessment for the ENTIRE AREA and mapping of all current and future water sources. Send emails to: firstname.lastname@example.org . You can download the background information document here. While you are in activist mode Please sign the petition too.